Wild Ginger, Flavorful, Fragrant Northern Treasure

Wild-Ginger-Ontario- Hidden medicine and gourmet spice14-06-2013-

Wild Ginger- Asarum Canadense

Not many people are familiar with Wild Ginger.
It is one of those unique, well hidden treasures of the deep woods that some Canadians or Northeastern Americans might come across, but most would not recognize. This may be a good thing. I believe it is on the protected list in Maine as a threatened plant, and I wouldn’t want to see a trend.

Wild Ginger, HiddenTreasure of our Northern Woods
Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense.  Hidden treasure of our Northern Woods. Used in the Medicinal, Culinary and  Fragrant “Arts”. Photo courtesy of Chris S. Packard

Shade loving and often found on north facing slopes under mixed hardwoods, It clings to humus, wends around rocks, clutching at the surface of the soil and more often than not does a good job stopping soil erosion.

Sleeping Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadense Ancaster Ontatio. Like the rest of us, patiently waiting for Spring. April 2013
Sleeping Wild Ginger Ancaster Ontatio. Like the rest of us, patiently waiting for Spring. April 2013

I would put it in a similar category of useful and highly valuable native plants as our Lady Slipper Orchid , which is almost extinct from encroachment of  roads and cities and from over-harvesting.

Wild Ginger
Wild Ginger (Photo credit: BlueRidgeKitties)

Beautiful large green heart-shaped leaves glow & glimmer with an almost iridescent depth. In the spring they shyly hide beautiful purplish flowers, making them almost invisible. As if they were doing everything they could to not be found or recognized, to hide themselves from prying eyes and greedy hands. Leaves are similar in size, shape, colour and height to the Coltsfoot that grows almost everywhere here. Making it even harder to make a first acquaintance. It took me almost 2  years of false starts,  impulsive roadside pullovers, dashes across  fields, into woods, across streams, being so sure I had, finally, found it, …… and each time, catching myself a little sooner,  my initial excitement tempered with a little more skepticism, as I sought out the telltale’s of those impostors,  Coltsfoot and Wild Violets, blatantly impersonating Wild Ginger. Finally, I assume because the time was right, I was granted a personal audience. Deep in the woods, one on one, while hunting wild Mushrooms. I wasn’t even looking for it at the time!! 

 It’s Latin name is Asarum Canadense. Distinguishing it from its European cousin Asarum Europeaum, which has a little to no aroma and a general resemblance only on the surface. I believe the European version is in general toxic and medicinally acts as an  emetic and Cathartic so beware. Also an abortifacient if I am not mistaken. Though it makes a pretty good shade loving ground cover in Northern climates if anyone.

A dense colony of European wild ginger (Asarum...
A dense colony of European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) at the Botanical Gardens in Münster, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ahhhh Wild Ginger what can I say? You really have to smell it, taste it to know what I’m talking about. Scientifically it does not belong to the ginger family at all, But once you meet it you’ll know immediately why it got its name. Not quite as “hot” as Asian Ginger, but more than makes up for bite in its complex spicy flavour. It has an aroma and taste that gives it extensive possibilities in an infinite number of dishes

In the field of Natural Perfumery, its essential oil is exquisite! There’s nothing like it. I use it  in perfumes, colognes, aftershaves and room sprays. Basically wherever I can. It blends well with Citrus, Woody and Balsamic essential oils, made easily into a  perfume tincture.  It has a high percent of volatile oils so it is worth the effort of distilling the essential oil, and I would love to extract a resinoid or concrete someday soon. I have a feeling it would add even more potential to its use in perfumery.

    An interesting characteristic, is that when steam distilling the essential oil of Wild Ginger, the oil comes over a beautiful Emerald green, but over the course of a few weeks it changes permanently to a rich Amber colour. I know of no other essential oils that behave this way.

My first Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil, (2004?)
My first Distillation of Wild Ginger essential oil, (2004?). Gorgeous Green, after a few weeks mellows to a rich Amber colour. Just one more thing that makes it unique.

As a tea, the ground rhizomes  are delicious, help ease a sore throat, mix well with other stimulating and spicy tea herbs, fruit or Citrus peels. It is warming and rejuvenating, lovely in the winter and like regular Ginger it encourages good digestion and discourages flatulence. Native North American tribes have historically used it for medicine and ceremony. In the summer I add it to iced tea and Lemonade. As a base for an alcoholic or non-alcoholic brewed Ginger Ale or beer, there is nothing like it!

Wild Ginger complements rice dishes, wild mushrooms, (and regular ones), fowl, Venison, Beef, Lamb, Chicken etc., etc., anything really!! Roasts and stir frys, Casseroles and pasta dishes. Sauces and Salad Dressings. Coarsely grind some  with Mortar and Pestle and throw it in a pot of rice. It will transform it. Each little piece will turn into a flavorful chewy delicious tidbit by the time your rice is cooked, adding not only fragrance and flavor but a unique texture to your rice pot. Though I would not suggest completely replacing Ginger in the kitchen with Wild Ginger*, it creates delightful results anywhere regular Ginger is called for.

Candies, cakes, cookies and confections are a very exiting area to explore with Wild Ginger.  The rhizomes make a wicked candied treat when boiled in sugar-water, then rolled in sugar, keeping unrefrigerated till it is gone, (which I promise you is never long), and the fragrant syrup from this process is perfect as a pancake or ice cream Syrup. If this Candied Wild Ginger is dipped in chocolate, I know of no other home-made confection that could compare. I add ground wild Ginger to fruit and herbal wines, Fruit cocktails and salads. I Have used it as a flavour component in a distilled liqueur, in Elderberry and Dandelion wines. There might be culinary applications it is not suited to at least experiment with. But honestly, I can’t think of even one! I usually add about 1 1/2 times more Wild Ginger to a recipe than regular dried Ginger.

A treat for the senses, Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadenses offers infinite delights in the kitchen and Perfume studio.
A treat for the senses, Wild Ginger, Asarum Canadenses offers infinite possibilities and delights in the kitchen.

If the dried rhizomes are properly stored, whole, not ground, they can keep for up to 8  years without losing their fragrance and potency. (as has been my experience). When Wild Ginger is ground and properly stored, three years is about the length of time before the flavor starts fading. I dare anyone that reads this to keep Wild Ginger in any amount till such time as the fragrance fades!! If you have it, you will use it till it is all gone!

One of my "secret" plots of Wild Ginger is under the cover of this gorgeous fall scene. Another reason fall harvesting is different than Spring.
One of my “secret” plots of Wild Ginger is under the cover of this gorgeous fall scene. Another reason fall harvesting is different than Spring. I can almost smell it!

For the past 14 years I have taken care of some plots of Wild Ginger growing “untended” in our area. (Locations I keep secret and share with only a handful of trusted friends). I harvest yearly in the fall and sometimes in the spring, experiencing the subtle differences each season lends it as I rotate between plots. After much trial and error I have come up with a couple of good harvesting methods that strike a balance between bringing home a bountiful harvest, and leaving behind happy thriving plants. This allows me to harvest every other year or so, and come back to vibrant vigorous growth that shows barely a sign of my presence. A very satisfying feeling. Win win, like good business we all benefit and do well from our relationship. Give and take. Honesty. A happy relationship. 

Bone Harvesting tool for Wild Ginger
Bone Harvesting tool made specifically for Wild Ginger. With a long, very sharp edge, it slides between rhizome and soil, cleanly and quickly slicing it from rootlets. Painless, smooth, and somehow not as obtrusive or discordant as a steel tool. The angled handle and sharpened tip make the design even more functional. It is a joy to work with.

There are many myths, anthropological, cultural and hard to prove theories about not using “Cold Steel” to harvest plants. whether it disturbs the plants energy, or the energies that are exterior to the plant. Mostly theories that are very difficult to prove even with advanced tools. Some things we just have to study or try for ourselves or we will never find out what is fact, what is fiction, what works and what doesn’t.

 I must admit, using bone tools feels like I am working from the inside out, if that makes any sense. As if I am a part of the plant or process, not intruding, disrupting, invading.  Feels more like sharing than taking. Sometimes I can only tell if something really works by how it “feels” to me, or by the results I get, like using Astrodynamics and Astrology to work in harmony with the plants. (As I do with Wild Ginger as well). The resulting products look, smell, and work better, last longer than the mass harvested and processed products I gauge them against. The whole process, in all it’s parts, just “feels” right, so that’s what I do. I also keep a thumbnail or two, extra long, from late Spring into Late fall, specifically for harvesting semi soft stems of flowers and medicinal plants. It’s just what works for me. No one else is obligated to follow suit.

Wild Ginger, Fall 2012 harvest hanging from rafters for essential oil medicinal and culinary applications.
Wild Ginger, Fall 2012 harvest hanging from rafters curing.

I finally took down a few kilograms of fall 2012 harvest Wild Ginger that has hung from my rafters since the fall. I will distill a few Kilograms into essential oil this week, and keep the rest to sell locally and in my online shop.  If anyone is interested in making the acquaintance of my fragrant friend. I’d be happy to grind some up for you, or ship you whole   pieces.

Fall harvest of 2012 is cured, it always seems to mellow in the loveliest way when I make myself wait at least till spring to bring it down and use it

It is ready now to use for all the above mentioned purposes and pleasures, and I will have it set up for sale in my web-store at apothecarysgarden.com  once I get this blog posted and have a break! Here is a link to the Apothecary’s garden shop, Have a look. If you like you can order some for yourself and try it in your own dishes, and please let me know what you think.

Wild Ginger 2012 Harvest. Whole, ground and in pieces. Fresh, fragrant and flavorful, waiting to inspire and share itself.
Wild Ginger 2012 Harvest. Whole, ground and in pieces. Fresh, fragrant and flavorful, waiting to inspire and be shared.

I will post some of my favourite Wild Ginger recipes on my Recipe Page, but please be patient, it may take me a few days to get that organized. So check back if you don’t find anything new. Everything seems to take time!!!

* Wild Ginger belongs to a very large family of plants found around the world. Some of its distant relatives, especially in northern Asia have been found to contain amounts of aristolochic acid which is a carcinogen. As far as I know our Asarum species does not contain these acids in any but trace amounts, if at all. I have not been able to find any information or studies done specifically on our Wild Ginger in this regard, but I do suggest not replacing your use of Ginger completely with Wild Ginger. Everything in moderation.  And educate yourself… Here is a link to the Wikipedia site for Asarum Canadense, if anyone would like to edify themselves further.

Thanks

Dan

13 Comments

    1. Hi Isaac.
      It took me about 1.5 kilos of dried Wild ginger roots, (7.5 Kilos fresh) to get about 20 Ml of essential oil. Mind you it was with a very inefficient still and I did not soak the material beforehand as I would do now.

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  1. Thanks for the great blog. I have a few questions for you, regarding this plant. First of all, what is your take on its astrological correspondences? You say you like to harvest it in fall. Is that under a full moon, or what other timing considerations would you recommend? I am growing some myself, and am considering using it as a fragrance and perhaps insect repellant.

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    1. Hi Amy.
      Thank you for the compliment and questions.
      I started writing a post to address them but looks like that may take a while to finish and publish. I’ll try to answer them here and not keep you waiting.
      There are times when we have to use our own experiences of the plants to make a determination of their astrological and planetary rulerships. Sometimes the old knowledge simply doesn’t sit right with us, and sometimes we come across plants with no record of these attributes. Wild Ginger is of the latter group. I will share my conclusions and understanding with you. Feel free to question them or add your own experiences and insights. I am happy to hear them. We learn and grow from each other as much as we do from Nature.
      I categorise Asarum Canadense as ruled by Venus and the sign of Libra, and tropical ginger by Mars/Aries. Libra stands opposite Aries and as most zodiac opposites do, they reflect each other in some ways. I find the best time to harvest wild ginger is in the fall when the sun is in Libra. The new moon at that time offers itself in Libra as well, and the ebb of the moon is often considered the best time to harvest the root portion or rhizome of plants. At this time it is preparing for dormancy and I believe the rhizome is at its peak. You can also harvest from the same plot at the full moon in Aries and this would be an ideal method for comparing the two. I would say that if you wanted to use the plant for its warming and stimulating effects, harvest at the full moon in Aries. If your interest was in using it for perfume or fragrance, harvest with the moon in Taurus or new in Libra.
      I hope that was of some help. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.

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  2. Best post I’ve found about Wild Ginger after reading nearly a dozen blogs! I know of an abundance of it in Western Oregon where I’m from. Any comments on the difference between a fall and spring harvest? ~Josiah

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    1. Hi Josiah. Thanks for your interest and your visit.
      I will have to double check, but I believe your western version of Wild Ginger is not Asarum Canadense, but Asarum Caudatum. From what I hear they are very similar in taste, fragrance and use.
      Personally I find the fall harvest much richer and rewarding in all regards. It seems to be plumped up for winter dormancy. All that birds and bees, flowers and seeds business is behind it and is a most perfect time to sneak up and harvest some.
      I find spring harvest a little tougher, harsher and not as pleasant an aroma. Harvesting while it is in flower or seeding just seems rude. So fall is most definitely my favourite time to harvest Wild Ginger. Double check to make sure it is as it seems to me, just as edible and useful as Asarum Canadense, since it is not a variety I personally have experience with.
      Check out the differences between spring and fall harvest, but I bet you will find it’s really worth the wait till the leaves are almost off.
      Dan

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      1. Thanks for the reply,
        Your correct with the different variety, my understanding is that they are very similar but the western cousin is a bit more prolific. I’ve read that it also has a lower AA content, which decreases the “poisonous” worry (It also probably decreases it’s potency as a medicinal diuretic as well).
        I’m planning on harvesting just enough now to try a few batches of ginger ale and save some, and then I’ll try again in the fall and see the difference.
        ~J

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      2. Sounds like a solid plan. I figured with all your previous research, you had already heard enough about the “AA” theories.
        If you have a chance let me know what your experiences are, as to the qualitative differences between spring and fall harvests of your Wild Ginger.
        Enjoy the harvest!
        Dan

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  3. I find wild ginger all the time, always in abundance amongst Maple in Quebec. I shall have to try a salad dressing after reading your article.

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  4. Beautiful … and so timely, as you sent me a little sample of Wild Ginger, back in January, and I, an ignorant townie, was about to ask you what I should do with it! Now I can go to your recipes on the website, and find out. I loved reading about your surprise Special Audience. By the way, the Pesky tooth is this week completely recovered and can even bite, so the coconut oil pull daily, plus myrrh, did its stuff! We should spread the good news.

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  5. Really enjoyed this post, Dan…..I love wild ginger…..they have some at the Botanical gardens here in Montreal…..I tried growing some…..it was a complete disaster……

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    1. Thanks Mary lynn!
      I know. It can be tricky to grow!
      It loves the dark woods and i think it may have an aversion to conifers.
      I am getting some requests for live transplant stock. If I do collect some the next couple of weeks I will let you know, though quebec is abundant with Wild Ginger. If you know where some grows. Now is the time to transplant it, while it is sleeping. Or in the late fall.

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